While the benefits children can experience from play-based learning in the early years are extremely well documented, accounts that focus on the benefits parents, teachers, and caregivers can derive from facilitating or designing play-based learning strategies are still rather scarce.
This article attempts to address this gap, and it does so in relation to the alarming maternal and paternal depression rates in the U.S. Notably, parental depression tends to last well until children’s adolescence.
In this context, this article sheds light on (i) the nature of play and (ii) how facilitating play and designing play-based learning activities for children can improve parents’ mental health. In other words, it argues that play has the potential to benefit all parties involved.
This perspective, the article argues, is especially salient since parental depression tends to negatively affect children’s physical health and general well-being.
In effect, therefore, what follows is an account of some of the cognitive benefits adults can reap by facilitating or designing play-based learning and teaching strategies.
The Versatility of Play Based Learning In The Early Years
The unrestricted nature of play allows parents to facilitate or design a wide range of learning activities.
An obvious advantage of this is that parents can either facilitate activities that require the use of equipment and accessories, or they can even forge active links between play and learning without them.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of play-based learning is that both approaches can be equally effective and beneficial to parents as well as children; more on this shortly.
Play is also deeply versatile: that is, children can benefit not only from unrestricted, unstructured improvisation but also from well-structured, outcome-oriented play-based learning activities.
But what does this mean for parents?
Quite simply, it means parents interested in designing equipment-centric strategies can choose from a wide range of accessories: from the small and simple (e.g. wooden toys) to the elaborate and slightly complex (e.g. a play kitchen with accessories or outdoor play equipment).
In fact, there are plenty of easy-to-assemble toys and accessories depicting an equally wide range of learning-conducive situations.
There is, in other words, practically something for everybody, and it is therefore possible to address the kids’ needs as well as the parents’ needs.
What’s more, simply thinking earnestly about transforming an open, available space into a fun, useful play area is in itself a good way to hone our thinking and reasoning skills.
This is especially noteworthy since critical thinking has also been recognized for its capacity to alleviate adult depression.
In fact, simply watching children play also engenders a number of benefits for adults.
For instance, observers have shed light on the similarities between animal play and human play.
Watching animals play, it has been shown, not only relieves stress but also tends to make us relatively immune to it, enhances optimism, and even increases marital satisfaction.
It would not, therefore, be outrageous to state that watching children play engenders similar benefits.
In fact, as Bruce Goldsteing shows in his work on cognition and everyday human action, positive, safe, and enabling environments tend to enhance our cognitive capabilities.
Parents, therefore, can ensure their children’s well-being by simply watching them play; happy, satisfied parents, after all, are best equipped to draw the best out of their children.
Play Doesn’t Necessarily Require Equipment
At the same time, it is essential to recognize that not all parents prefer equipment-centric strategies.
For some, they may even be a source of undue stress.
Some elaborate play equipment come with a rather sizable number of accessories, and these typically work best if there is a special designated play area.
For instance, working parents may find it rather unpleasant to see toys strewn about when they return home.
It is also unreasonable to expect children to curb their enthusiasm while using these accessories.
Moreover, some equipment may require some assembling or setting up, and this may not be every parent’s cup of tea.
Nonetheless, parents who do not mind the mess can even encourage children to clean up and arrange all accessories in an orderly manner by making a game out of it.
In addition, setting up and assembling play equipment also improves adults’ motor skills and coordination, which in turn may alleviate symptoms of depression.
In fact, adults may even be able to lower the risk of conditions such as Alzheimers during late adulthood by actively using or honing their motor skills.
Role playing or dramatic play is perhaps the best example of a learning activity that does not necessarily require special equipment.
It can either be freestyle or highly structured, and both approaches are deeply beneficial to parents and children.
More importantly, it is also a great tool for parent-child bonding.
It can be especially rewarding for working parents who seldom get the opportunity to spend time, let alone play, with their children.
Typically, working parents not only miss a great opportunity for parent-child bonding but also have to contend with the fact that their children might forge special bonds with their more available babysitter or caregiver.
Since time is at a premium for working parents, it would be extremely beneficial for them and their kids to spend hard-earned together-time role playing.
In sum, therefore, this article aims to persuade adults, especially parents, to adopt play-based learning/teaching strategies.
If well designed and implemented, these strategies improve parents’ mental health, which in turn maximizes the benefits children derive from play-based learning in the early years.
Dennis Wesley is an independent educational researcher and blogger. His interests include STEM, the Humanities, and mental health–especially interdisciplinary practices and methods. You can follow his personal blog here.